Joseph Tonda is a sociologist and anthropologist; he teaches at Omar Bongo University in Libreville and regularly lectures at the EHESS in Paris. While his research is about Central Africa, he is also interested in works undertaken by African and Western researchers in South Africa. It is with this broad field of vision that he answered our questions concerning the origins and developments of the figure of the zombie on the African continent. This year he published Afrodystopia: La vie dans le rêve d’Autrui, with Éditions Karthala in Paris.
Sophie Lapalu: The figure of the zombie has become omnipresent within Western society, from film to Halloween parades. To broach this figure and its reappropriation by Western culture, it seems to us that we need to go back to certain cultures of Africa, notably Central Africa. ‘The origin of the word itself is uncertain. While some were able to see the traces of the French ‘les ombres’ [shadows], others insist instead on the African origin of the term as with the figure itself. Mvumbi, in the Congo, refers to a cataleptic individual; nvumbi, in Angola, to a mindless body; zan bibi in Ghana, Togo, and Benin, to a ‘creature of the night’.1
In Haiti, the zombie is a person in an apparent state of death. What is the role of similar figures, ghosts or spirits, in the religions of West or Central Africa?
Joseph Tonda: My answer will leave the strict framework of religions and the ‘African origins’ of this term and of the figure it describes, to consider it in two directions that complete one another. The first is what we might call the ‘magic’ of fabrication of ‘similar figures’ to zombies, in their relationships to witchcraft,2 whereas what I call ‘magic’ here would fall more within the register of sorcery. The second direction is that of the relationships between zombies and the capitalist neoliberal or market economy. Two reasons justify this option. The first is to suggest the idea whereby the symbolic figure of the zombie could exist and be described in Western literature without the term being uttered or known, even though other terms, for instance vampire or monster, existed in the literature produced in this Western socio-historical context. In this context, the mechanisms and logics of the capitalist system in force were producing real beings that we might describe as zombies. The second reason is that the alleged African origin of the term functions, in reality, as a kind of funhouse mirror enlarging all that the logics and mechanisms of capitalism produce in the West. The question of ‘origins’, as is generally the case, is here and elsewhere very connected to that of the myths and rites that update them. This is why I consider the African or Haitian magic that produces zombies as rites (or practices) whose function is the creation of myths that recount, through transfiguration, the fundamental violence of ‘African societies’, that is, of the societies described as such by the West. Since ‘Africans’, ‘Blacks’, or ‘Negroes’ have only been produced as such through the violence of the ‘encounter’ with the ‘white man’, that is, the ‘white-male-Western subject’,3 a product of ‘triumphant rationality’ that expelled into him ‘his own irrational impulses’ that had become threatening, nebulous, obscure and that were attributed to an ‘Other’. This Other being the ‘non-subject’, or the ‘minor subject’. Anselm Jappe, who I just paraphrased, writes specifically in this regard: ‘The white male bourgeois subject thus projected unbridled sensuality, in turn, onto the working classes, people of colour, women, gypsies, and Jews.’4 It must be added that this white male bourgeois is a liberal.5 The ‘white man’ is therefore the one who is ‘emptied’ of his ‘own irrational impulses’, thus imposing himself as a positive figure of the zombie, while the ‘repulsive’ zombie would symbolise the ‘non-subject’, that is, the ‘coloured man’. In my opinion, the subconscious of the zombie is that of this mirror relationship between, on the one hand, the ‘white Western male subject’, known as the ‘white man’ who assumed the power and privilege of naming the others,6 who forced them to circulate between continents, thus generating the transfiguration of the narrative of physical violence suffered into the languages and symbolisms of the violence of the imaginary of the zombie; and on the other hand, the ‘non-subject’, ‘Black man’, ‘African’, or ‘coloured man’.
From this point of view, zombie is a term and a figure of this violence of the imaginary that are part of what I call Afrodystopia, ‘African dystopia’, which can only be conceived in relation to Eurodystopia. In other words, the violence of the zombie imaginary derives from the dynamic of the interpretations of material realities, which translate physical power relations of domination, submission, and dehumanisation. This implies considering the appropriations of this figure by contemporary artists in the West, as well as its habitual use in the film industry and its spectacularisation in Halloween parades, as equivalents of the magic practices of staging of the same sentiments or subjectivities created in Africa, in the face of the dehumanising adversity that produced ‘Blacks’ and ‘Africans’. The same fears of the future, the same practices of dehumanisation produce the same effects on the imaginary and symbolic level. Definitively, the zombie is the transfiguration of the human experience of dehumanisation.
So let’s start with the ‘magic’ of the fabrication of zombies that, consequently, this dehumanisation presents. The magic of the Konhg concerns three countries: Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. That of the Andzimba concerns Congo Brazzaville and that of the Moyeke the two Congos. These magics all have as their production or fabrication principle subjects that are emptied of their consciousness and agency, becoming ‘mindless’ people, blindly obeying the orders of their owners who grow rich from their labour. The magic of the Konhg is therefore found in Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea interchangeably. It serves to produce individuals who supposedly live on after their death and work, particularly in the coffee or cocoa plantations, for the benefit of their owners, after they have been captured through magical procedures. It thus falls within the imaginaries or subconscious related to trafficking, slavery, and the economy of the plantations. It is an answer to the question of inequality and the difference in the acquisition of wealth. We know that, on a historical level, the men or women who grew rich from the sale of men and women captured inland – the vast majority of whom were coastal dwellers – had networks of suppliers of ‘human-commodities’ at their disposal. In so doing, the magic that was developed to express real practices as symbolic acts belongs to logics of power and force that were indispensable to the capture of these ‘human-commodities’. Within the framework of this magic, as in the historical reality itself, the powerful person is the one who is supposed to have a ‘supplement’ of power or strength within his body. This ‘supplement’ is considered a biological ‘growth’, an ‘additional’ organ. This conception is firmly rooted in the historicity of societies prior to the violent episode of the slave trade and slavery. The expert hunter, the most effective fisherman, the unbeatable fighter prior to this episode have their equivalents today: the most ‘competent’ judge, the most ‘intelligent’ student, the most renowned teacher; in short, all those who are better than average, are endowed with this ‘supplement’ of ‘force’ or ‘power’. Meaning that the imaginary of the Konhg is the imaginary of surpassing, which is synonymous with ‘protrusion’, ‘surplus’, or ‘supplement’. The magic of the Konhg is the technique of fabrication of beings emptied of their vital substance to be used as an additional force necessary for the constitution and reproduction of the power of others, that is, the owners of these ‘living dead’, who are the precise equivalent of zombies. So, here, we are dealing with an imaginary that maintains symbolic affinities with the imaginary of the ‘profit’ that is made through exploiting others. Because the magic of the Konhg, produced by invisible workers, are ‘power-beings’ of exploited work in their death, so that their owners can enjoy the product of their labour. In the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), a ‘similar’ magic to Konhg exists on (invisible) occult markets constituted right along the Congo River and its tributaries. It is the magic of the Andzimba that is said to be specialised in the abduction of people designed for sale on the markets upstream. The allegedly abducted individuals can reappear, dead, floating in the river, but it is immediately said that these are just ‘shells’ because the people sold and reduced to slavery are still working for their owners. In Brazzaville? In the West? Whatever the case, the general schema here is that of the slave trade and slavery.
So let’s retain the fact that the principle of all of these types of magic is the work of the dead, or of individuals emptied of their vital substance, in other words, extreme ‘non-subject’ figures. Their work is meant to be invisibly performed and to explain the sudden wealth of certain people. This enables us to repeat and complete a famous saying by Birago Diop in the Tales of Amadou Koumba: in Africa, ‘the dead are not dead’, by highlighting the fact that not only are the dead not dead, but also that they are, in the form of zombies (since the zombi is a form emptied of its ‘contents’, its ‘substance’), workers in an occult (meaning invisible) capitalist economy. In this respect, the work of Jean and John Comaroff7 showed how, in the context of a post-apartheid, post-revolutionary and neoliberal South Africa, a true ‘epidemic’ of zombies broke out during the 1990s, that is, after 1989, the year when the world fell into the neoliberal capitalist economy. Zombies, in this South African context, were real human beings, clandestine African foreigners, accused by the South Africans of stealing their jobs, and therefore of depriving them of the possibility of founding families. It was said that the ‘owners’ of the zombies had toxic sperm. A whole imaginary of the zombie, described as a captive workforce that the owners stored in barrels during the day and freed at night, thus making them work ‘in the dark’8 took into account some of the real problems of the neoliberal era and its structural violence, in which some enterprising individuals were making profits from new opportunities to get rich. The enigma of wealth without work or invisible visible workers was the origin of this spate of violence against those who were thought not to have a tongue, because they did not reply when spoken to. It was said that their tongues had been cut out and that they disappeared as soon as they were identified: zombies. The question of the absence of language (which must also be understood as the absence of the tongue as an organ, the Comaroffs tell us) is explained by the foreign accent of the workers, which betrayed them. The idea of their sudden disappearance could be explained by the risk of death that clandestine foreign workers faced whenever they were identified by black South Africans and fled. Obviously, the Comarroffs tell us, the violence of the imaginary9 of zombies (they are talking about the violence of the abstraction) that lays the foundations of their imaginative sociology, was based on an old representation of bodies without substance because they had been ‘emptied’, at night, by witches. This imaginary is present, in Central Africa, where what I call the haunting of disappearance is palpable.10 This haunting is expressed in the idea that the subjects are exposed to the action of the invisible devouring of their vital substance. People thus ‘eaten’ by night, by witchcraft, and who, by day, ‘seek’ people who they deem responsible for their death, through ‘provocations’, bear the name of ehongo, in iKota, the language spoken by people in both the Congo and in Gabon. Ehongo, this individual who has been ‘eaten’ by night, and who must die in the daytime, performs ‘provocations’ likely to lead to fights in which they will be killed. This is how the violence of the imaginary of witchcraft operates, that is, the violence of the imaginary of the vampire, heavily documented by Florence Bernault in Gabon.11 In this sense, the phenomenon of zombies is inseparable from the general phenomenon of witchcraft, whose principle is the violence of the imaginary of ‘sucked blood’ or devoured flesh. Didn’t Marx himself consider the violence of capitalism in terms of the figure of the vampire?
What I have just said shows that Afrodystopia, African dystopia, can only be understood in relation to what I call Eurodystopia. You say that the figure of the zombie has become omnipresent within Western society, from film to Halloween parades, in other words, in the world of the spectacle. In my view, the figure of the zombie, even though it was not necessarily described as such, lies at the very heart of logics of operation of capitalism and the modern state, as literary works describing dystopic worlds attest: the paradigmatic example of this being George Orwell’s 1984, but also scientific or philosophical works about the figure of the subject, proletariat or bourgeois, concerning Western societies.
In Utopia, Thomas More tells us that the vile, the people of the lower classes, are showered with gold and luxury. It is therefore a critique of English society’s burgeoning capitalism in the sixteenth century. However, in Eurodystopia, the ideal proletariat in London, Paris, or Berlin, ‘is someone whose head has been emptied and shrunk and certain organs of which have become specialised, notably the hand – but, on occasion, it could be the feet, the eyes, the ears . . . The finality of these operations has been perfectly identified by Marx: the emptying of the head and the monopolisation of the hand, this allows the extraction of the surplus-value by the master, that is, the capitalist.’12 Three centuries after the publication of More’s Utopia, the proletariat that inhabit the European dystopia are people whose heads have been emptied, ‘mindless’ people, in other words ‘zombies’. At the same time, these people are those who produce the capitalist surplus-value and the Lacanian plus-de-jouir (surplus-enjoyment). Lacan ‘effectively explains that the economic market that was created between the individual who sold his labour power for a subsistence living and the capitalist is also a market of enjoyment, because a “plus-de-jouir is established therein, which is captured by the other, the master” . . . obtained by [the proletariat’s] renunciation of enjoyment.’13
Producing subjects without consciousness or desires, whose ‘organs’, mainly the hand, like a machine, work on extracting surplus-value, strikes me as the non-subject produced and promoted by neoliberalism. In a very diabolical way, this is presented as a machine that lobotomises the proletariat, by turning them into the beings-for-enjoyment that Lyotard had perceived. This is what he wrote, regarding the birthplace of Orwellian dystopia: ‘The English unemployed did not have to become workers to survive, they – hang on tight and spit on me – enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolutions of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening.’14 Enjoyment emerges as a structural component of ‘mindless’ people in the neoliberal dystopia of today. A dystopia that prefigured 1984, under the regime of Big Brother. Despite the ‘sexual puritanism’ advocated by the civil servants of the Big Brother state, enjoyment is on the programme of this state and is expressed through the collective orgasm produced by the Week of Hate15 and that leads people without consciousness or desire to ‘love’ Big Brother, because they have lost their ‘heads’. These people are zombies. Because in the Big Brother state, O’Brien tells us: ‘We are dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone.’16
- Maxime Coulombe, ‘Zombies, symptôme d’une époque terrifiée’, in Socio-anthropologie, Mortels ! Imaginaires de la mort au début du XXIe siècle, 2015, 49–60.
- See the work of Edwards Evan Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1937.
- Robert Kurz, La substance du capital. Préface d’Anselm Jappe (Paris: Éditions l’Échappée, 2019), 269.
- Anselm Jappe, La société autophage. Capitalisme, démesure et autodestruction (Paris: La Découverte, 2017), 47.
- Domenico Losurdo, Contre-histoire du libéralisme, (Paris: La Découverte, 2014 [first Italian edition 2006])
- Regarding these general considerations, see Léonora Miano, Afropea. Utopie post-occidentale et post-raciale (Paris: Grasset, 2020); Achille Mbembe, Critique de la raison nègre (Paris: La Découverte, 2015 ); Domenico Losurdo, op. cit.
- Jean & John Comaroff, ‘Nations étrangères, zombies, immigrants et capitalisme millénaire’, Bulletin du Codesria, 3 and 4, 1999, 19–32; Zombies et frontières à l’ère néolibérale. Le cas de l’Afrique du Sud postapartheid (Paris : Les Prairies ordinaires, 2010).
- In French au noir, also means ‘under the table’, NdT.
- The notion of the violence of the imaginary was created and developed by Joseph Tonda in Le Souverain moderne. Le corps du pouvoir en Afrique centrale (Congo, Gabon), (Paris: Karthala, 2005).
- Joseph Tonda, L’impérialisme postcolonial. Critique de la société des éblouissements (Paris: Karthala, 2015).
- Florence Bernault, Colonial Transactions. Imaginaries, Bodies, and Histories in Gabon (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 183–187.
- Dany-Robert Dufour, L’individu qui vient… après le libéralisme (Paris: Denoël, 2011), 187.
- Dany-Robert Dufour, Baise ton prochain, op. cit. 85.
- Jean-François Lyotard, Economie libidinale (Paris: Minuit, 1974), 136.
- George Orwell, 1984, op. cit. 240.
- Ibid. 235.